If you scroll down across this blog, you will most definitely realise that I am a 'railway enthusiast'. Trains are indeed a childhood passion that over the years became my main hobby, but more importantly became a political belief too. Railways offer a more comfortable, cleaner, greener, quieter, quicker alternative to any other mode of transport. It allows us to also be productive instead of boringly driving, and therefore take our workplace and our home out there, on the move. High speed (i.e. railway solutions that exceed 200 km/h) is something I also believe in, although I believe it has to be built wisely. Many people (including myself until now) believe America should build high speed railways between its metropoles, and would hugely benefit from it. I'm starting to think that it may not... well not precisely. Here's why.
In Europe, it is usually believed that train journeys under three hours become more attractive than flying. This is roughly how long a Los Angeles - San Francisco train journey would look like with high speed rail. Nowadays, taking the train between both cities is a mission, driving takes about 6 hours, while flying is a quick and comfy one-and-a-half-hour treat... There are many cities in this situation in the US: Acela Express, America's only high-speed-ish service, connects Washington to Boston (via Philadelphia and New York) in 6 hours and this could be cut further with a dedicated high speed line.
So why is this not best for America? The development of a US-wide high speed network has been really late compared to that of Europe. High speed in Europe has dramatically changed the way people travel, but it has also enabled travellers to connect easily to other rail services (regional, standard inter-city, etc.). The US has none of that: the territories crossed are far wider and less dense, and there are very few regional networks to connect to. Therefore, high speed rail in America might be a good alternative to flying or driving long hours, but it is not an integrated solution.
What should we do then? If there is no need to build high speed railways in sync with smaller regional networks, why not skip a generation and offer new alternatives to railways themselves? High speed rail has been around for the past 40 years - America could innovate and come forward with a new technology taking them all the way to the 22nd century. Asia has maglev trains, the US could be the pioneer in building the hyperloop.
A hyperloop would offer city-to-city services at the speed of a plane, without the usual airport fuss and irritating carbon footprint. It would be much faster than high speed rail (about three times) and of course wayyy faster than cars (9-10x).
While the East Coast might be too dense for this solution, California and the Midwest would be fantastic places to try this new system. Ultimately, one could see services running from East to West, with a journey time of 5-6 hours (according to the Amtrak website it takes about 60 hours by train to cross the entire country nowadays).
I remember visiting the 2010 High Speed Fair at Philadelphia 30th St Station when I lived there. The event was minuscule compared to what a similar event in Europe might look like - however there was clear enthusiasm about bringing high speed corridors to the US. Six years later, not much has happened in that department, while the question of mobility has evolved dramatically thanks to up-and-coming thinkers like Elon Musk. If America wishes to join Europe, Japan and China in that great public transport adventure, maybe it should wisely decide to skip high speed trains and to show the world instead how Hyperloop's done. The ball is in your court!